Cycads across the globe face several threats, including trade in wild collected plants, habitat destruction, traditional use, threats of alien vegetation and unviable populations. In South Africa the biggest threat facing cycads is the poaching of plants from wild populations to supply both the domestic and international cycad trade. There is an urgent need for authorities in South Africa to focus attention on cycads, to prevent further extinctions and allow for the recovery of over exploited wild cycad populations. Poor implementation of past and current legislation with limited/weak law enforcement, unsuccessful prosecutions and ineffective sentences is the major factor that has resulted in the cycad extinction crisis.
At present, of the Encephalartos species in South Africa, three are already extinct in the wild (EW) and 66% are classified in one of the threatened categories, 12 are Critically Endangered, 4 Endangered and 9 Vulnerable. Of the 67 known species of Encephalartos cycads endemic to the African continent, South Africa is home to 38 of them 29 of which are endemic to the country, making South Africa an important hotspot for cycad diversity.
Cycads are often referred to as "living fossils" and have changed little since the Carboniferous period 50-60 million years ago. Cycads are often confused with both palms and tree ferns because of a superficial resemblance , however they are actually totally unrelated
There are two main focus areas of this project. The first component will consist of the roll out of a specialised cycad identification and enforcement skills training programme, aimed at law enforcement officials, who are mandated to protect cycads, but lack the necessary specialised skills. The second component of the project will be a dedicated awareness campaign for the judicial system to make state prosecutors and magistrates aware of the consequences of cycads becoming extinct and the reasons why successful convictions and maximum penalties are essential for effective enforcement in relation to cycad conservation.
The specialised training programme will equip law enforcement officials with the necessary skills and knowledge, to address the illegal trade in cycads and enforce the current moratorium. Successful enforcement acts as a strong tool for compliance and as a deterrent to trade illegally in cycads, and thereby also reducing poaching of wild cycads. Through the provincial training interventions, provincial cycad enforcement networks and key contacts will be developed. These specialist focus enforcement groups will be available to share and assist with their skills and knowledge for other enforcement agencies, and when dealing with cycad crimes. Lastly, it is envisaged that within the judicial realm there will be an improved success rate in court cases leading to stronger penalties that will serve as deterrents for future crimes and continued poaching.